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How Will Cities Deal With Increased Police 'Mission Creep'?

Rear view of a police officer guiding apprehended man into police car

By Brett Wooley

Amid public debate about the role of policing in the U.S., "mission creep" of police officers over recent decades finally is getting some serious attention.

Despite the fact that some academics have been arguing that the police are not the best responders to calls related to homelessness, addiction, and mental health, calls for alternative responders for non-dangerous calls were not seriously considered until the summer of 2020.

As several cities have adopted programs for alternative responders, academics, policymakers, and officials, are being forced to reckon with the costs and benefits of such programs. Some panelists at last week's annual Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America highlighted the significant disagreement that still exists on the issue.

Participants focused on how to recruit and manage a police workforce during a time of increased accountability for officers and calls to change the focus of policing.

Elsie Scott of the Ronald W. Walters Public Policy Center at Howard University said a police chief lamented to her the “mission creep” of modern policing, and the fact that “everybody wants to dump everything on the police.”

She declared, "We have overextended the police. We now expect them to be mental health specialists. We expect them to be sociologists. We expect them to be everything.”

Scott placed much of the blame on legislators, because it is only by criminalizing behavior that the police can have any authority to act. The system allows police chiefs and other authorities wide discretion in enforcing y vague laws/

No one argues that police should not have wide authority to respond to a mental health crisis, because they can be very dangerous. Many question whether police should be the ones to respond to every mental health crisis, a question that must be answered by government executives through policy, not legislation.

The internal culture of policing should be a major factor in the current debate, said another speaker, Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. “If you want to change American policing, you got to capture the hearts and the minds of the cops.”

Police morale is increasingly strained as governments burden officers with more and more responsibility in dealing with issues such as homelessness, addiction, and mental health. For years, academics’ claims that police often are not the best

With the push resulting from the 2020 protests over George Floyd's death, alternative responses for many emergency calls have begun to be seriously debated by policymakers.

Sheriff Rosie Rivera of Salt Lake County, Ut., said the public must be made aware of “what police are required to do, and what police really should not be doing.” She believes that the more mission creep is discussed, the more action state legislatures, city councils, and government officials will take to fix it.

Scott said police must be given discretion to address issues such as mental health, drug addiction, and homelessness, if other governmental efforts to fix those problem are lacking amid a public appetite to deal with them.

She said the situation takes a toll on officers and is making recruitment more difficult.

PERF'S Wexler said that he has “never been troubled by the fact that the police are asked to do a lot of things, because whenever something bad happens, people . . . call 911.” They do this because when many problems arise, they are urgent and do not occur during business hours.

Still, cities as diverse as New York, Eugene, Or., and Denver are dispatching nontraditional responders to many mental health crises.

Nancy La Vigne of the Council on Criminal Justice suggested that the 911 system, which usually operates independent of the police force, should be re-examined. She said that it is often difficult to ascertain the actual level of risk from a 911 call.

In any case, police often respond more quickly than can another agency.

Suppose a mental health crisis response team could reach the scene in 10 minutes, but a roving police officer could reach it in three. Some say police officer should be dispatched to the scene to stabilize it, while others say that a police officer might do more harm than good.

Wexler reported that there is evidence that better training for officers can lead to fewer uses of force in these sorts of calls. That is complicated by the fact that the there are nearly 18,000 police agencies and no national training standards.

Whether the appetite for police reform will lead to more alternative response programs or increased police training is unclear, but panelists concluded that “defund the police” mantra that began circulating during the summer of 2020 is all but dead.


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